Right whale sightings offshore

2012-2013

25 sightings.

18 individual whales including 7 mother/calf pairs.

5 in S.C. waters.

2011-2012

70 sightings.

42 individuals including 4 mother/calf pairs.

16 in S.C. waters.

2010-2011

47 sightings.

36 individuals, 5 mother/calf pairs.

18 in S.C. waters

2009-2010

84 sightings.

58 individuals, 3 mother/calf pairs.

18 in S.C. waters.

2008-2009

121 sightings.

95 whales, 14 mother/calf pairs.

16 in S.C. waters.

Sea to Shore Alliance

A controversial rule forcing ships to slow down in right whale waters has been adopted permanently and is roundly cited for at least contributing to a reduction in the number of fatal strikes.

But the approval is little more than a make-good effort from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Survey flights that alerted mariners to the imperiled whales' presence have been cut back because of tight NOAA budgets. The agency approved renewing Navy warfare and sonar training without significant new restrictions in the whales' waters, despite evidence that the noise can deafen an animal that communicates and navigates by echolocation.

Meanwhile, some 70 percent to 80 percent of the whales still get entangled in fishing lines at least once in their lives, sometimes killing them, scientists say.

As it stands, the only real chance for the rare, critically endangered mammoths to survive on the East Coast might lie in how well they can adapt on their own - as other species have done - to human impact. But they roam an "urban" ocean that is rapidly becoming far noisier and more hazardous than the species has ever known.

Wildlife advocates aren't hopeful.

A calculation biologists now use to determine just how endangered a species is sets the number of individual animal deaths the species can sustain annually and survive, said Richard Delaney, president of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. For the right whales, that number is one.

"We're right on that fine line of extinction right now," he said. "We can't imagine how much the whales' acoustic world has changed. Entanglements remain a very serious threat. In the long run the biggest threat to the species might be shifting habitats. Warming seas are taking away phytoplankton food sources."

No fix

Right whales are the rarest of the large whales, 40-ton creatures hunted close to extinction a century ago. Today fewer than 500 are known to exist in the north Atlantic Ocean, a slight improvement in recent years.

The improvement followed a decline to a low of few more than 300, a decline that continued for years after commercial whaling ended in 1935. The recent uptick has been credited to a series of efforts that include heightening public awareness, innovative programs such as listening buoys in the Northeast and the survey flights.

Off South Carolina, the flights have ended because of budget cuts. In those flights, observers first noted the presence of moms and new calves - establishing the waters as part of the winter breeding grounds previously thought to be confined almost exclusively to Florida and northern Georgia.

Partly because of the aerial survey work, NOAA in 2008 mandated that until 2014 large ships within 23 miles of the coast must slow to half-speed when the whales are around. That rule was made permanent late this year.

Shipping and ports interests fought the rule and its permanent adoption, maintaining that it had little effect because whales were not often struck before it was implemented.

NOAA scientists disagreed.

"Since the ship-speed restrictions went into effect, no known fatal ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales have occurred in the management zones," said Mark Schaefer, deputy NOAA administrator, in a news release. "This rule is working. Before this rule went into effect, 13 right whales died as a result of being hit by vessels in the same areas during an 18-year study period."

But the rule is no fix. Observers say it is sometimes violated by military and commercial vessels. The survey flights have been a de facto sheriff keeping watch.

Last year, 18 whales, including five mother-and-calf pairs, were spotted off South Carolina. Without the flights, the only time commercial ships will be alerted to watch is if somebody happens across one or more of the whales and reports it.

'A fighting chance'

Along with ship strikes, line entanglements are considered the leading cause of death. In Southeast waters, a number of agencies collaborate to try to free a whale reported tangled. But they are dependent on the whale being spotted and reported. In the Northeast, the coastal studies center is a prime agency in charge of freeing tangled whales.

Its federal funding also has been cut back, Delaney said, while the number of entanglements appears to be on the rise.

The whales' numbers are increasing in recent years. But the threats are increasing along with them, said Michael Moore, a senior research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The whales do appear to be adapting somewhat to the urbanizing ocean. A recent study suggests that they sometimes deepen their vocalizations when man-made noise in the ocean increases, in order to hear and be heard better. But boat traffic, noise and other disruptions are likely increasing faster than the animals can adapt, Moore said. They simply won't be able to make it on their own.

"As whales are forced to adapt ... any management efforts will have to be dynamic to remain effective," he said.

"There are steps we have taken and there's more we should be taking to at least give them a fighting chance to survive," Delaney said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.